February 7, 2012

Is acupuncture a risk factor for hepatitis C in Asian patients?

4.08PM 07 February 2012

Several years ago, I was refused from donating blood because I had recently received acupuncture as a participant of a trial. Even today, the NHS is very clear on this point: the current leaflet handed out to all blood donors states, 'you must not give blood if you have had acupuncture, unless this was done in the NHS or by statutory registered health care professional'.

But is this wise?

A Californian team investigated 494 patients with hepatitis C in order to determine the risk factors for this infection.1 Specifically they wanted to find out whether the risk factors differ between various ethnic groups. 55% of all patients were Caucasian, 20% Hispanic and 25% Asian.

The laboratory profiles of these sub-groups were similar. 94% and 86% of Caucasians and Hispanics had commonly known risk factors for hepatitis C such as blood transfusion, drug injection or tattooing. For Asian patients, the picture was significantly different: in this population, acupuncture was a prominent risk factor. Some 50% of this subgroup had had acupuncture prior to the infection (Caucasians = 31%, Hispanics = 20%).

Many British GPs regularly see Asian patients; these findings from the US therefore beg the question whether UK Asians might be at similar risks. Patients can, of course, only be infected, if the acupuncture needle is not sterile. Thus the chances of acquiring an infection via adequately handled disposable needles should be zero. All regulated acupuncturists are told to use proper and safe techniques. It follows that, in the UK, the risk of hepatitis C infection through acupuncture should be zero.

But what about the unregulated acupuncturists who Asian patients might consult? What about the TCM-outlets in our high streets? What about amateur Asian acupuncturists who are on no register at all? To the best of my knowledge, there is no research to answer these questions.

To be on the safe side, therefore, acupuncture should be considered as a potential source of hepatitis C, particularly in Asian patients. To prevent such infections, GPs should urge their Asian patients not to frequent unregistered acupuncturists. And to prevent infections via blood donors, the categorical statement by the NHS mentioned above seems correct.


1. Ho EY, Ha NB, Ahmed A, Ayoub W, Daugherty T, Barcia G et al. Prospective study of risk factors for hepatitis C acquisition by Caucasian, Hispanic, and Asian American patients. J Viral Hepatitis 2012; 19:e105-e111.


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